Age of Discontinuity and the Chinese Shi

Fluidity and discontinuity are central to the reality in which we live   

                                                                               – Mary Catherine Bateson, 1990.

 The other day, I sat leafing through the yellowing pages of that half a century old Peter Drucker classic, ‘The Age of Discontinuity’. This book never ceases to amaze me at the prescient feeling it can generate even after so many decades. Drucker of course could not have envisioned the internet and today’s information flows but his book does ask the question, “As technology becomes ubiquitous, how would we need to cope?” He also challenged us “to be prepared for the complexities”. Big discontinuities that he saw so many years back……. as yet unresolved.

Since the dawn of history, Mankind has experienced discontinuities brought in by adoption of learnt skills and technology. As the first human learnt how to seed and grow plants, Mankind did a makeover from a wandering lifestyle to that of settlers on land. Then with the successive arrivals of the steam engine and electricity, the agrarian lifestyle started morphing into industrial clusters and an associated urban way of life.

And so has been the cycle. A periodic massive disruption of the way we live, the way we work, the way we trade, all leading to a discontinuity. But always, Mankind returned back to stability. Adjusting back into the equilibrium of a new socio-economic format, till the next bout of discontinuity.

But methinks we now have reached a different arena. A space and time where technologies are no longer stabilizing. If at all, they seem to be changing at a faster and faster pace. One needs to just see what is happening to computing, information and communication to appreciate this.

As I reflect, I am left wondering if we are facing the mother of all discontinuities, a shift to a world without stability. A world in which extreme social and economic disruptions become the norm. Be it the ongoing financial turmoil in the global markets. Be it increasing volatility in commodity prices. Be it companies losing out their leadership positions at an increasing rate. Be it product life cycles becoming shorter and shorter. I wonder if these indeed be the symptoms of a world becoming increasingly unstable.

So how do we, the individuals, cope with such constant discontinuities and loss of stability? Wired as we are to cherish stability and continuity in life, how do we retain our balance and sanity?

I think of the Chinese concept of Shi. Simply put it signifies a propensity based on situation. So whenever there is the propensity to play out to an extreme, there also occurs the tendency to self correct and reverse course. And herein lies the magic of Shi- embodying the spirit of dancing in the moment.

Shi is a belief. It promotes lightness and a dynamic view of our world. In Shi, everything is in a state of becoming. So as we focus on the flows and the lightness of the moment, we lose our obsession with discrete people, objects or situations. Shi allows a holistic appreciation of the complex webs of relationships among people, objects and the broader environment.

In a world fast losing traditional reference points, the future may well belong to those who adopt a Shi mindset. Those who embrace the lightness of relationships and flows rather than the heaviness of resource ownership. I believe it would be these ‘dancers of the moment’ who would lead the world in this era of uncertainty and discontinuity.


1  The Age of Discontinuity: Guidelines to our changing society

by Peter F Drucker,1969.

2.   The Propensity of Things: Toward a History of Efficacy in China

by Francois Julien,1999.